A senior Reagan administration official has expressed serious reservations about the latest Soviet arms control proposals, even as the Soviets formally put them on the table in Geneva. Ambassador Edward L. Rowny, a special adviser to the President and the secretary of state on arms control matters, says the Soviet proposals differ from American demands in certain key areas and should be accepted ``only as an interim step'' toward a more comprehensive agreement banning certain kinds of intermediate-range nuclear missiles.
Mr. Rowny also warned against focusing on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) and losing sight of ``the big picture'' of United States-Soviet relations. An INF agreement, he said, should be no more important a goal than reducing long-range strategic nuclear forces, ending the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, or altering Soviet human rights policies.
Rowny's remarks, made at a breakfast meeting with reporters, come as the Reagan administration moves closer to its first nuclear arms control agreement with the Soviet Union. The Soviets offically introduced their latest offer in Geneva yesterday.
The Reagan administration is coming under increasing criticism for its arms control policies, not only from within the US but also from some of America's European and Asian allies. Rowny seems to be agreeing with some of the critics.
He is one of the more hawkish figures among Reagan's arms control coterie. His remarks could be a signal of continuing disagreement among senior members of the administration.
Or Rowny could be signaling that the administration as a whole is having second thoughts about the latest Soviet proposals. Rowny stressed that his comments reflect the thinking of President Reagan, and were not given lightly.
Or the message could have been directed at the Kremlin, warning that some hard bargaining lies ahead before the latest proposals are hammered into a firm INF agreeement.
The Soviets have called for the removal from Europe of all nuclear missiles with a range of 600 to 3,400 miles, but they would still leave 100 such warheads in the Asian part of the Soviet Union. The US would be given the right to match those 100 warheads with new missiles based in the US. The Soviets have also proposed eliminating certain shorter-range missiles.
Some administration critics contend that such an agreement would leave the Soviets with an overall advantage in conventional forces in Europe. Moreover, they charge, it would be at the expense of America's Asian allies, which would still face the threat of 100 Soviet intermediate-range nuclear warheads within reach of their soil.
The proposals have provoked heated debate in Washington. Even former President Richard Nixon and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in their first joint publication since leaving office, warned in the Washington Post: ``If we strike the wrong kind of deal, we could create the most profound crisis of the NATO alliance in its 40-year history - an alliance sustained by seven administrations of both parties.''
Mr. Nixon and Dr. Kissinger warned: ``Any Western leader who indulges in the Soviets' disingenuous fantasies of a nuclear-free world courts unimaginable perils.''
Rowny termed the article ``refreshing and helpful,'' because it focused attention on the need for ``strategic thinking,'' and pointed out some of the shortcomings of the Soviet proposals.
``The US proposal was zero-zero,'' says Rowny, stressing that it did not allow for keeping 100 Soviet intermediate-range warheads in Asia. The deployment of Soviet missiles in Asia would make verification of the USSR's compliance with an agreement extremely difficult, he said, because the missiles in question are mobile and could be moved from the Asian to the European part of the USSR.
``Only as an interim step'' will the US accept any agreement that bans certain missiles from Europe, yet allows them to be deployed in Asia, Rowny says.
A US official said the administration was ``comfortable'' with that assertion, adding that it did not represent a ``straying from the straight and narrow.''
Rowny said the White House is not insisting on ``linking'' arms control agreements with other aspects of US-Soviet relations, such as human rights and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. But, he said, any potential agreement cannot be considered in a vacuum, and the overall state of US-Soviet relations must be considered when determining whether to negotiate and ratify such an agreement.
Rowny also expressed skepticism that the Soviets would allow the kinds of inspections that the US is demanding so as to ensure compliance with an agreement.
``Our [verification] proposals are pretty tough, and I'm not sure the Soviets will buy them,'' he said.